Before the American Civil War, a group of abolitionists organized the Underground Railroad - a network of people, places, and routes designed to assist escaped slaves. The name "Underground Railroad" was a metaphor. In reality, it was neither a railroad nor was it underground. But in Colson Whitehead's 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, the title refers to an actual railroad track and a train that literally runs under the ground. Its purpose was the same as the actual Underground Railroad - to facilitate the journey of escaped slaves and to connect them with safe places and with the people who could help.
Whitehead takes other liberties with historical accuracy in his novel, describing laws and cultures that did not exist in the nineteenth-century American South. But he does so with a purpose.
This is the story of Cora, a Georgia slave who escapes first to South Carolina, where a group of progressive white people has set up a colony in which blacks are allowed employment and treated with greater respect than in the rest of the South. She then travels to North Carolina, where the citizens have decided the best way to end slavery is by outlawing negroes - a crime punishable by death. Ultimately, she ends up in Indiana, joining a community of African Americans that have built their own economy and coexist with the whites of the local town.
Despite the differences in Whitehead's alternate history, he maintains the spirit of the struggles of blacks in antebellum America. Cora is pursued relentlessly by professional slave catcher Ridgeway and must frequently flee to new places, often losing the people she loves on the way. Although the world of Whitehead's novel contains significant differences from actual American history, he captures the horrors of slavery and forces the reader to feel the omnipresent fear of being a black fugitive in the nineteenth century. The dehumanizing horrors of slavery are not whitewashed in this story.
Both Cora and Ridgeway are haunted by the memory of Cora's mother Mabel, who escaped when Cora was an infant. Cora feels forever abandoned by her mother, while Ridgeway is obsessed with the memory of the only escaped slave he failed to recapture. In the final chapter, Whitehead reveals Mabel's fate, and this provides a satisfying closure for the reader, if not for Cora and Ridgeway.
Many of the whites she encounters appear to be progressive thinkers, but they maintain their prejudices and their beliefs in ethnic superiority. They congratulate themselves on their acceptance of negroes, but still perceive the black race as inferior - often with deadly consequences. Their rationalizations are often frightening.
The novel is not perfect. I don't understand why Whitehead felt it important to turn the Underground Railroad into a physical subterranean train. Perhaps it was to underscore that this was a work of alternate history, but it felt like an unnecessary gimmick.
Still, this book works on several levels. It is a story of survival against impossible odds; it is a love story; and it forces the reader to consider what it means to embrace racial equality - a question that is still relevant today.